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Sequoia district: Most are pleased with proposed high school district map

About 20 members of the public showed up on Jan. 15 for the school board meeting for the Sequoia Union High School District. The discussion topic: a revised map that, in addressing a gradual surge in enrollment, considers exactly which households should be assigned to a particular high school, starting with the 2015-16 school year.

The low turnout was significant, given the high turnouts and high energy demonstrated at previous meetings on this subject. Not that there was a lack of energy, just less unhappiness. The remapping of a district of 200 square miles and four high schools, of around 2,000 students each, elicited expressions of concern only from residents of two streets in North Fair Oaks. "That you have gotten this issue down to two streets is heroic," board member Chris Thomsen said in commending Superintendent Jim Lianides and his staff.

The new maps would put the entirety of the Las Lomitas and Ravenswood City school districts in the Menlo-Atherton High School community, and would reassign part of North Fair Oaks to Sequoia High. Woodside High would divest the small portion of the Las Lomitas district whose households had guaranteed admission to M-A (to keep the Las Lomitas cohort intact). Woodside High would acquire parts of the Sequoia High district in Redwood City.

The Sequoia district is facing enrollment-growth projections of at least 25 percent by the 2020-21 school year. Significant growth is coming from neighborhoods assigned to Menlo-Atherton, adding pressure to a school that is built out and sought after for its consistently high academic performance. M-A, now at 2,000 students, will bear the brunt with expectations of over 2,600. Woodside High would grow to 2,000 from about 1,800.

The concentration at M-A reflects the priority coming out of impassioned community discussions held in 2013: do not break up middle-school cohorts. The new map follows through on that priority. M-A would become home for three intact K-8 districts: Menlo Park City; Las Lomitas, which draws from Atherton, Menlo Park, West Menlo Park and Ladera; and Ravenswood City, which draws from East Palo Alto and Menlo Park east of U.S. 101.

The board consented to Mr. Lianides' using the map to start another round of community discussions. A task force is outlining the physical changes needed on each campus to accommodate the enrollment surge. With that complete, the board will have a frame to consider a bond measure to put before voters, either in a June or November 2014 election.

As for the revised map, speakers from the Ravenswood district lauded the board for assigning it to M-A. The revised map would definitively end involuntary busing of East Palo Alto students to Woodside and Carlmont high schools.

The busing, a result of a court-ordered desegregation plan that expired in the 1980s, continued in practice for three decades but is now out of favor in the Ravenswood community. The Sequoia board enacted a policy in the fall of 2013 that ended the busing for the 2014-15 school year; the revised map will essentially set that policy in stone.

Not won over

The one pocket of dissatisfaction, the North Fair Oaks residents, centered on retaining M-A as the home school for households between Atherton and 8th Avenue, but reassigning to Sequoia High residents north of that line, including 6th and 7th avenues. The proper dividing line, those residents said, is 5th Avenue, an arterial thoroughfare.

These residents, though located in the K-8 school district in Redwood City, said they bought homes with the expectation of being assigned to M-A. They have Menlo Park ZIP codes, and M-A is within walking distance, whereas Sequoia is a bus ride away, they said. The trajectory for their children has been K-8 in private school and high school at M-A. "They send their kids to public schools if they believe in the public schools," said resident Hugo Vliegen, who lives on 9th Avenue.

"You speak of keeping communities intact and that is what (concerns us)," said a resident who went by the name of Eli. "Fifth Avenue is the obvious dividing line, not 8th Avenue."

Mr. Lianides suggested that for a time, students from these households use open-enrollment to request M-A and be given head-of-the-line admission privileges.

As for drawing the line at 8th Avenue, he justified his decision with numbers. A majority of the high-school-age students on 6th and 7th avenues attend Woodside and Sequoia, whereas the reverse is true on 8th Avenue, Mr. Lianides said. A majority of K-8 students on 6th and 7th avenues go to public schools.

The district has had a working definition of community: the middle-school cohort. The Avenues, with its public and private choices for K-8, is one neighborhood where that definition gets complicated, board member Alan Sarver noted. "Any way we end up drawing that border is going to be a division of a very diverse community."

Overcrowding at M-A is also a key concern, and every decision has an impact, Mr. Lianides said. "I think we have to be very, very careful about what we do."

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